Social Protests Research Paper

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Social protests have been integral to collective life since the first complex communities were formed. One of the oldest references to protest was found on an inscription in a tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings from the reign (1198–66 BC) of Rameses III in the New Kingdom translated as follows: ‘Today the gang of workmen have passed by the walls of the royal tomb saying: we are hungry, eighteen days have gone by, and they sat down behind the funerary temple of Tuthmosis III … the workmen remained in the same place all day’ (Romer 1982, pp. 193–5).

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Social protest is defined here as contentious action undertaken collectively in response to perceived injustice or unfair action on the part of those who hold legitimate political and economic power. It seeks to achieve social (as opposed to political and economic) ends, or alternatively to restore or return to earlier ways of life. Examples of such aims are a more equitable distribution of privilege or wealth, reducing inequality among persons or groups, changing or restoring religious beliefs and/or cultural practices, and reversing cultural change. This research paper examines social protest in Western and non-Western societies starting in Antiquity and through the nineteenth century.

1. Protest In Imperial Rome

The authoritarian regime of Imperial Rome did not offer many opportunities for peaceful communication of ordinary people’s grievances or wishes; despite the city’s heavy policing, however, the large agglomerations of people in the Colosseum, Circus, and theaters offered the possibility of mass (and more or less anonymous) expressions of popular opinion. In these settings, crowds could shout demands in the Emperor’s presence for the disciplining of a hated official, or object to an unpopular war. The streets too were a locus for popular protest, especially that about the shortage or high price of grain. Street disorder of this type contributed to the fall of Nero. Crowds of ordinary citizens might also call for the downfall of a usurper of the Imperial throne or express their dissatisfaction with a prefect or his policy.

The grain riot or angry complaints about the high price of bread continued to be a feature of popular protest in many parts of the world, right into the twentieth century. Most medieval and early modern European states sought to regulate the grain trade and concomitantly the price of bread at retail. These controls began to be modified and eventually removed as trade was liberalized in Western Europe, and newly formulated laissez-faire theories were put into effect in the late seventeenth century. The result was an upsurge of two types of protest: (a) crowd blockage of grain being moved on roads or waterways out of a growing region with a surplus to one with a shortage, or a city (especially an administrative city or the capital) with a stronger claim on adequate supplies; and (b) the market riot with confiscation of grain, its sale by the crowd, and often payment (at lower than the asking price, of course) to the owner for his grain. Market riots were more likely to occur in cities or towns, sometimes along with attacks on bakers and looting of their shops.

2. Protest About Food Supply And Taxation In Old Regime France

Looking more closely at the relationship of food supply and public order in ancien regime France, widespread food riots beginning in the late winter or early spring (when the price of grain began to rise if the fall’s crop had been small) and involving large numbers of people occurred in cycles beginning in the seventeenth century and ended only in the early 1850s. The timing of the upsurge suggests a relationship with political centralization, including policy decisions concerning economic matters and the modification of longstanding paternalist policies, especially those concerning the production and marketing of grain. Several of the modern period’s great revolutions (French, 1789 and Russian, 1917) began with contention about food prices, and went on to attack—and overthrow— monarchies.

Tax revolts are another common form of protest that span the centuries of European history; the well-documented case of France is again illustrative. Increased taxation to finance the dynastic ambitions and consequent wars of the Bourbon kings made heavy demands on ordinary French men and women, to which they responded with protest. In a political system in which noble status (and ecclesiastical office) exempted the upper classes from most taxation, the fiscal burden fell disproportionately on peasants and commoners. Seventeenth century disputes over the legitimacy of new direct taxes, including attacks on collectors, were usually community affairs, but sometimes transcended single communities when the tocsin was sounded at a tax collector’s first stop to arouse a whole region. New indirect taxes were farmed out to individuals (tax farmers) who had the responsibility for collecting them through private agents; both tax farmers and agents were subject to attack. Although at first, punishment was more exemplary than extensive, widespread repression became common over the seventeenth century; the label ‘croquant’ (a countryman armed with a stick) was first applied to peasant rebels in 1594 in southwest France, Yves Berce tells us, and continued to be used in recurrent rebellions until 1752. The titles of other seventeenth and early eighteenthcentury rebellions likewise suggest the commonalty: Sabotiers (shoemakers, 1658), Bonnets Rouges (red caps, 1675), and Camisards (white shirts, intermittently from 1685 to 1710). These rebellions occurred in off-the-beaten-track areas of France that had formerly been only lightly taxed or exempt from particular taxes, so that inhabitants took extreme umbrage at the imposition of new taxes or stricter enforcement of the old.

3. Early Modern Religious Protest In Europe

The revolt of the Camisards illustrates religious protest, another type of social protest which can be found across Europe in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. In France, the Edict of Nantes (1598, promulgated after decades of religious wars by Henry IV) had granted freedom of conscience to Protestants all over France, permitted public worship by Protestants in designated towns, and guaranteed their civil rights; in 1685, however, Louis XIV revoked the edict, thus capping several decades of decrees limiting the effect of the policy of tolerance, and increasing the pressure on Protestants. They nevertheless continued their forbidden forms of worship (often outdoors, since they had no churches), especially in the southwest province of Languedoc; there Protestant Camisard bands conducted a guerilla war in the hills, clashing over 25 years with the forces of order. The military repression was expensive, and the rebels reduced tax revenues by attacking tax collectors and destroying property, but royal forces finally succeeded in ending Protestant protest in 1710. Over the last years of the Old Regime, a more tolerant policy emerged unevenly, alternating with periods of intensified repression.

Outside France, but in Western and Central Europe, the sixteenth century was also a period of extensive social protest connected with the Protestant Reformation. The German Peasant War has been the object of controversy since it began and Catholic authorities promptly claimed that Luther’s revolt against the church had promoted peasant rebellion. Historians of the rebellion have also disagreed, with Marxists— starting with Friedrich Engels—claiming that the Peasant War was socioeconomic class warfare and nonor anti-Marxists interpreting it as a conservative movement seeking to restore Catholic principles of right and justice. More recently, Peter Blickle (1981) has again emphasized the religious underpinnings of the conflict. He argues that contrasts between urban and rural revolt are not clear cut; both urban and rural ordinary people emphasized justification through scripture. And there was only one outcome: the rising ended with the defeat of the rebels and its leaders executed.

In 1536, the Pilgrimage of Grace challenged Henry the VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in England, with a brief aftermath early in 1537. Like the revolt of the Camisards, the Pilgrimage (the term includes several more or less coordinated local risings) mixed religious issues with political and economic ones; unlike the Camisards, however, the Pilgrims were protesting Henry and his minister Thomas Cromwell’s rejection of aspects of Roman Catholic doctrine. The Pilgrims’ banners portrayed the Five Wounds of Christ and they were often led by priests. Among the significant political events which preceded the revolt in 1536 were the passage of parliamentary acts which dissolved the ‘lesser monasteries,’ and permitted the king to name his own successor; the clergy of England then rejected the doctrine of purgatory, and accepted Henry’s Ten Articles making (what seemed to some) modest changes in religious doctrine, a compromise document.

The Pilgrimage began with the rising of nine ‘hosts’ (popular armies, including members of the gentry, clergymen, town dwellers, and peasants) starting in Lincolnshire, followed by eight more raised in Yorkshire and elsewhere in the north. Attracting new recruits on their way to take the city of York without a battle, the rebels united around the term ‘pilgrimage’ to designate their undertaking to ask the king’s grace in preserving ‘Christ’s church’ and their sworn oath. Robert Aske, a member of the gentry became their spokesperson. First a truce, and then a general pardon from the king were bargained and granted (it contained promises of a parliament in York and that the abbeys which had been closed under the dissolution decree would be reopened) which led to class divisions within the hosts and in January 1537, renewed rebellion, which was put down militarily. Compared to the German Peasant War, the Pilgrims of 1536 included gentry, peasants, and townsmen, but like most early modern large-scale protests, it failed to achieve its backward-looking goals.

4. England’s Glorious Revolution And Its American Colonies

England’s seventeenth century Stuart monarchs struggled with Parliament over taxation and royal prerogative, a struggle that ended in civil war when Charles I ordered the arrest of his opponents in the House of Commons. Charles I was beheaded after he was defeated in battle but refused to abandon his opposition to parliamentary claims. When the Puritan Republic ended after Oliver Cromwell’s death with the restoration of the Stuarts—Charles II (1660–85) and James II (1660–88)—the struggle between kings and Parliament resumed. The struggle was finally resolved in the Glorious Revolution of 1689, when James II abdicated to be replaced by William and Mary; the outcome was a greater role in English governance for Parliament.

Wars consumed the West European mainland until the mid-eighteenth century, when monarchical governments reached a new great power balance in which Spain played only a peripheral role. France and Great Britain (following the unification under the same monarch of England and Scotland) faced each other as rivals not only in Europe but also in North America and South Asia where both had colonial interests. The following paragraphs look at social protest in other world regions, both colonized and free, starting with the British colonies in North America, continuing with two Asian examples.

During the Restoration period, the British kings sought to increase their control over their North American colonies by passing Navigation Acts, based on mercantilist economic theory which would limit colonial trade and manufacturing in order to promote English trade and manufacturing. In pursuing this goal James II replaced the proprietary governments of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and the Carolinas with royal governors and suspended their elected assemblies. The colonists resisted these interventionist efforts and overthrew the governors of New York and Massachusetts, and replaced the proprietor of Maryland. The interests of colonial populations had diverged from those of the royal governments in England, including that of William and Mary after the Glorious Revolution (1689) in which James II was forced into exile. The 13 North American British colonies increasingly became another locus for the rivalry of France and Britain that was also being played out in Europe.

With the end in 1763 of the Seven Years War, Britain took over most of the former French colonies, while domestically, it staggered under an enormous war debt. The government searched for a solution to its liquidity crisis in the colonies, attempting to contain settlement south of Canada to the area east of the Appalachians, impose new taxes, and limit self-government in North America. These heavy-handed British policies only increased colonist dissatisfaction, and to make matters worse they were followed by new revenue generating laws: the Sugar Act (to improve enforcement of the duties on molasses), the Currency Act (which forbade the colonies from issuing paper money), and the Stamp Act (which taxed the paper used in legal documents and publications). Public protest erupted in several of the colonies, with coordinated resistance in Virginia and Massachusetts, and a meeting (the Stamp Act Congress) of delegates from nine colonies in New York in 1765 to plan further protest. Colonists boycotted imports from Britain and formed the Sons of Liberty who sponsored more public meetings; attacks on tax collectors spread. Although the Stamp Act was repealed, new taxes were passed including a duty on tea; to enforce compliance special courts were established and British troops were transferred from the frontiers to eastern cities. The dispute again escalated as colonists began new boycotts and renewed attacks on tax collectors.

The tea grievance did not disappear even though the new duties were again repealed, for Parliament granted the British East India Company a monopoly (another mercantilist policy) for the importation of tea into the colonies. This time patriots disguised as Native Americans dumped a large quantity of tea into Boston Harbor. British authorities placed the Massachusetts colony under military rule, and open rebellion followed, starting in 1776. By 1781, the colonists had defeated Britain with the help of France and a peace treaty was signed which granted unconditional independence to the 13 colonies. Spanish America also had its colonial protest and revolutions, beginning when Spain was distracted by Napoleon’s invasion in 1808 and most of its colonies in the Americas achieved independence.

5. France And Germany Before And After 1789

Protest in continental Europe in the eighteenth century fell into the patterns described for early modern England. In France, protest about grain shortfalls or bread prices continued to dominate even as the monarchy sought to improve the circulation of grain so that regional shortages would not arouse public ire. In fact, the methods that the French state followed to reduce protest—removing market and price controls—merely agitated local populations because they could no longer count on controlled grain markets. The ‘free trade’ solution for France’s economic problems had the effect of making matters worse from the point of view of consumers, and both Napoleon and restored monarchy after 1815 reinstated some controls in difficult times.

After the establishment of the Third Republic in 1871 both the paternalist policies and old forms of protest disappeared. Expanded political incorporation via universal male suffrage—passed early in the Revolution of 1848 but manipulated under Napoleon III to produce needed electoral majorities—was finally implemented in the 1870s. Better harvests and the more efficient transportation that the railroads provided for moving grain to regions with poor harvests helped to reduce protest as well. Worker unionization became legal in 1864 and with time, strikes became a routinized form of collective action in France as well as Britain. This does not mean that violence dis- appeared, for violence is an interaction between police (or the military in cases of martial law) and protesters. The point is that both more professional methods on the part of the authorities handling strikes and protest and greater formalization and nationalization of political parties and workers’ organizations led to the development of routinized policies for dealing with collective protest, thus reducing its impact (Tilly 1971).

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a watershed in typical forms of collective protest which the German states also crossed. Reports from German states such as Saxony in 1842 detailed how rural craftsmen who were dependent on wages to buy bread had mobbed grain dealers who had bought and were moving grain out of the region to more distant urban areas (Tilly et al. 1975, p. 192). By the early twentieth century the industrialization of production, unionization of laborers, and urban populations had increased disproportionately in Prussia. (Unified Germany was a federation of formerly independent states, the most powerful being Prussia, and urban public order was the responsibility of the individual states.) In 1910 there was a massive disciplined demonstration in Berlin in which the Socialist Workers Party (SPD) leaders called for a political response: reform of the Prussian three-class electoral laws. The demonstration was then still a comparatively recently adopted form of protest through which ordinary people could bring their dissatisfaction with public policies to the attention of the government.

6. Social Protest In Nineteenth-Century Asia

We turn now to Asia, to examine two non-European cases of nineteenth-century protest: in the Dutch East Indies and China. The Dutch East India Company (founded in 1602) had displaced the Portuguese in Southeast Asia by seizing Malacca at the southern end of the Malay Peninsula and conquering the kingdom of Acheh on Sumatra as well as the western part of Java by mid-century. The Dutch built their administrative capital, Batavia in western Java, leaving the rest of the island for some years to the Javanese kingdom of Mataram. A series of civil wars and regional revolts involving the Dutch and local princes ended in the 1750s with the division of Mataram into four new princely states, but lower level war continued. By then, Chinese immigrants controlled local and inland trade and the Dutch ran plantations and long distance trade in coffee and teak. By the late nineteenth century, Michael Adas (1979) shows, Dutch control over Javanese society had profoundly undermined the island’s formerly independent economy. The Dutch system for the collection of tolls on roads and canals (using Chinese subcontractors) was similar to the seventeenth and eighteenth century French tax farming and aroused similar objections. Moreover, the Dutch could not win militarily because they lacked knowledge of Java’s interior and in the end, they chose expediency and limited goals, preventing further unrest and raising new revenues to pay the costs of the war. This was done by forcing Javanese peasants to dedicate part of their time to cultivating cash crops to be sold overseas by the government. Although peace was restored, Dutch agricultural policy severely distorted Javanese social and demographic patterns, and drained its economy as Clifford Geertz (1963) demonstrates in his study of ‘agricultural involution.’

China was never fully colonized, but Western intervention in its economic and political affairs beginning in the eighteenth century nevertheless had a great impact on its social and economic development. The Taiping Rebellion of the mid-1800s serves as an example here. Jesuit missionaries had been active for some time in the area around Guanzhou (Canton), as were British merchants buying tea and looking for customers to buy their products, with little success. The immediate result was a negative trade balance for the British; to remedy this European merchants together with Chinese partners imported opium from India into China through Canton, a profitable commerce that grew rapidly in the early years of the nineteenth century. When the Qing court belatedly addressed the problem in 1839 and sought to cut off the trade altogether, the British easily established their superiority in gunboats and arms and forced the Chinese to sign a treaty that opened five ports to them with very low tariffs. Soon after, a Chinese treaty with the United States legalized the importation of opium by foreigners. Chinese resentment of both missionary efforts to convert them and Westerners’ privileges increased.

The study of C. K. Yang (1975) of ‘mass action incidents’ (group actions involving public issues) that he links with others to constitute ‘events’ shows an upsurge of incidents in the years 1846 to 1875. The best known of these events is the Taiping Rebellion, which started in the poor and backward region of Guanxi, to the west of Guanzhou. Its originator and leader was a disappointed office seeker who encountered Protestant missionaries in Guangxi and—inspired by the Christianity they preached to him—developed his own messianic version of the message. Believing himself to be the brother of Jesus Christ, he would found a new Heavenly Kingdom (Taiping) that would bring peace on earth.

The Qing government sent a military force to Thistle Mountain, where Hong had settled, to arrest the Taiping leaders, but the mission failed, and the Taiping continued to preach. New converts extended the membership beyond the Taiping. Life among the Taipings was highly regimented, with sex-segregated military work teams; women were forbidden to bind their feet and were welcomed as workers and soldiers. The Qing forces of order were able to chase down the Taipings who had crossed the Yanzi River and in 1853 occupied Nanjing and held it for more than 10 years. The rebellion was only crushed after the French and British, who had invaded Beijing in 1860 to punish the Qing for not following up the treaties ending the Opium War, joined the Qing army in crushing the Taipings. Frederic Wakeman Jr. (1966) concludes that the Taiping Rebellion earned the unhappy record as the world’s bloodiest civil war, in which tens of millions were killed in fighting and executions. As social protest, it combined many incidents and lasted for years, but nevertheless is considered one event because of the numerous links between the incidents.

7. Twentieth-Century Protest In The West

The twentieth century has seen new or reinvented forms of social protest such as boycotts, sit-ins, and more formalized social movements (q.v.). Citizens of most national states have by and large received rights to participate fully in the political process, but the extent to which governments respect those rights continue to differ. Whether citizens can influence policy formally (through elections and representative government) or informally (through protest) is still disputed between citizens and states in many parts of the world. What has changed is greater consensus between protestors and authorities that has largely formalized protest and how it is expressed. Even in the West, however, social protest may become violent either through design (for example, the anarchist protest at the World Trade Organization’s 1999 meetings in Seattle), or through the breakdown of policing procedures that have been developed in Europe and North America to handle such situations. The contours of social protest continue to shift in many countries, especially in those in which channels for making citizens’ opinions known are very limited or non-existent and where governments seek to limit or even prevent popular participation. Social protest has not disappeared: it continues to occur in both authoritarian states and those with long-established formalization of procedures as a means for expressing dissent or the desire for change.


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